This post features guest-writer, Ryan Freitas, musical collaborator and friend of John Gotsis (owner and instructor at Vibe Music Academy). Ryan is a professional multi-instrumental musician and educator based out of Lansing, Michigan.
Paul McCartney, Prince, Beck – what do they all have in common? Yes, they’re all successful recording artists and GRAMMY winners, but they all share something a little deeper: They are all successful multi-instrumentalists who have recorded at least one album where they played most, if not every instrument from start to finish. Prince, in particular, is said to have played 27 different instruments with proficiency.
While you, I, or your young musician may never reach the status of those three, learning multiple instruments can have profound effects on one’s musicianship. Being a multi-instrumentalist myself, I can attest to this.
I believe I’m a much better musician because I play more than one instrument, but it doesn’t come without it’s hurdles. Let me explain.
1) Better understanding of the entire band.
Most of the time, you’ll be performing music with other people. The more you know how to interact with them, the better bandmate you will be. For instance, if you are playing guitar in one band but also play the bass, you will know how to fit in and around the bass player’s parts better, because you know the bass player’s role. This goes for any style of music or ensemble.
2) Fluent in more "languages."
Each instrument has its own language, and the more languages you know, the more you can communicate and understand. One language informs the other, just like how knowing Latin, French, and Spanish helps us understand certain things about English, and vice versa (which is a Latin phrase – see what I did there?).
For example: When I was in college, I was learning both saxophone and bass solos from different jazz records. Saxophone players and bass players don’t usually play the same type of material in their solos due to the various challenges and limitations of each instrument. But because I learned both languages, I can now draw from them both – no matter what instrument I’m playing.
3) More effective band leading.
The more instruments you play, the more effective band leader you can be, because like I mentioned in point #1, you'll know everyone’s role. You won’t have to tell the drummer, “Just play something that sounds good.” Instead, you can go show him or communicate to him, in his language, what you want.
4) More gigs.
Musicians are always looking for gigs. The more instruments you can play, the more opportunities you will have. And gigs make you money. Therefore, More Instruments = More Money. There are also jobs in the music industry specifically for people who play everything. Like a utility man in baseball (who can play many different positions on defense), there are “utility" players in some touring bands. Someone like Meghan Trainor may not need a saxophone player on every song. But if you can play keyboards, acoustic guitar, tambourine, and sing background vocals too, you just might be able to get a job that would’ve been off limits to you before.
5) More students.
This goes along with the previous point, but if you want to teach lessons to the next generation of musicians at some point, you’ll have more opportunities if you can teach more than one instrument. So, to expand on the above formula, More Instruments = More Students = More Money.
1) “Jack of all trades, master of none”...
...is an oversimplification, but it can be a typical downfall for multi-instrumentalists who are just unfocused (that’s how I started; I was ADHD, so I just wanted a different thing every week). It's not a good idea to let your student bounce around instruments every time the novelty wears off. A good aspiration is becoming a "master of one," and being solid on the others.
2) Cross-technique interference.
Your playing technique on one instrument may interfere with the technique of another if you’re not careful. This is probably the biggest problem of them all. For example: you wouldn't want to play the piano with the same wrist motion you use to play the drums. Conscious, deliberate separation of techniques is key (and having good teachers helps a lot).
3) Greater Cost.
Simply put, it costs more money to acquire more instruments and gear. (Sorry, mom and dad.)
4) Extra time investment.
This is pretty self explanatory, but it can’t be understated. If you’re already struggling to find time to practice your primary instrument, you might not want to complicate things by adding something else. Focus on getting good at one thing if that’s all you have time for.
5) Motivation and Patience.
Along with time, you will also need extra motivation and determination to learn another instrument. It can be frustrating to reach a level of proficiency on one instrument, only to start from square one on another. It can feel like being a beginner all over again. Of course, it’s all worth it in the end, but you might find yourself just spending your time on your primary instrument, since it’s more enjoyable to play when you’re good at it.
Being a multi-instrumentalist myself, I have to admit that I'm a bit biased on this subject. I think if you have the time and resources, learning multiple instruments is hugely beneficial and fun. I think that, in the end, you will be a better musician because of it. However, my advice to a beginner would be to stick with one thing until you get a good grasp on it. Learning other instruments becomes a lot easier once you’re good at your first one. I can’t stress that enough. Whatever you decide, make sure you have a good teacher! It’s the best way to learn efficiently and make the fastest progress.